Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Finding of St Stephen the First Martyr

Today is traditionally celebrated as the feast of the Finding of St Stephen the First Martyr. This took place in the year 415, when the teacher of St Paul, Gamaliel, who is named twice in the Acts of the Apostles (5, 34-40 and 22, 3) appeared in a vision to a priest of Jerusalem named Lucian, on three successive Fridays, and named the location of the burial. Gamaliel further revealed that he himself had taken charge of Stephen’s body after his martyrdom, and buried him on his property near a village that bore his name, Caphargamala; and that he himself was later buried in the same place, along with his son Abibas, and Nicodemus, who is mentioned in three places in the Gospel of John. (“Abibas” is the Hellenized form of the name “Habib”, which means “beloved” and is very common in Semitic languages.)

St Stephen Mourned by Gamaliel and Nicodemus. Attributed to the anonymous painter known as Pensionante del Saraceni (active 1610–1625), a follower of the Venetian painter Carlo Saraceni (1579–1620); ca. 1615. Public domain image from the website of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Gamaliel ordered Lucian to tell what he had seen in these visions to bishop John of Jerusalem, who then sent the latter to investigate the site. In due course, the graves were discovered, with inscriptions to confirm the identity of the persons buried therein. John was then attending a synod at Lydda (the places of St George’s martyrdom); on receiving word of the discovery from Lucian, he hastened to the site, attended by two other bishops and a large multitude of people. When the coffin of St Stephen was opened, the ground shook, and “an odor of such sweetness and fragrance came forth therefrom, … such that (those present) thought they were in the delight of Paradise”; seventy-three persons were healed of possession and a great variety of physical ailments. The relics were then translated to a church on Mt Sion, which Lucian’s letter, the first source for this story, anachronistically describes as the place “where Stephen was ordained as archdeacon.”

From there, portions of the relics were subsequently sent out to many other places, as attested inter alia by a sermon of St Augustine. “His body lay hidden from (the time of his martyrdom) until these days; but recently appeared, as the bodies of the holy martyrs are wont to appear, by the revelation of God, when it pleased the Creator. And indeed, it was revealed to him who showed these very things when they had been found; for the place was shown beforehand by signs, and the discovery made just as had been told by revelation. Many have received relics from there, because God willed it so, and these have come here.” (Sermon 318, 8) At the end of the 5th century, Gennadius, a priest of Marseille, wrote a continuation of St Jerome’s book On Illustrious Men, in which he states that “Lucian the priest, a holy man, to whom God revealed the place of the burial and the relics of St Stephen the First Martyr, in the time of the Emperors Honorius and Theodosius, wrote down (the story of) the revelation to all the churches, in Greek”, which a Spanish priest named Avitus then translated into Latin. (capp. 46-47; PL 58 1084B).

A reliquary for the hand of St Stephen from the cathdral of Genoa, Italy.
Prior to the Tridentine reform of the Breviary, it was far more common for the lessons of a Saint’s life to occupy all the lesson of Matins, and readings from Scripture on feast days were very rare. Therefore, in the Roman Breviary of 1529, the lessons of August 3rd tell the story as above, with a number of other less important details, in six lessons which occupy the first two nocturns of Matins. In the third nocturn, a homily of St Jerome on the Gospel of the day, Matthew 23, 34-39, is repeated from St Stephen’s main feast day.

In 1568, however, the lessons are reordered according to a pattern which was made universal by the Breviary of St Pius V, in which those of the first nocturn are always Biblical, those of the second are either a Patristic sermon or the life of a Saint, and those of the third a homily on the day’s Gospel. In the case of today’s feast, the lessons of the third nocturn remain the same, while those of the first are repeated from St Stephen’s octave day, Acts 7, 51 – 8, 2, the end of his speech and the account of his death and burial.

The story of the discovery of the relics by Lucian would normally then be compressed into the three lessons of the second nocturne, as was done for countless other Saints. However, they are actually reduced to two lessons, while the sixth is taken from the last book of St Augustine’s City of God.

“When the bishop Projectus was bringing the relics of the most glorious martyr Stephen to the waters of Tibilis, a great concourse of people came to meet him at the shrine. There a blind woman entreated that she might be led to the bishop who was carrying the relics. He gave her the flowers he was carrying. She took them, applied them to her eyes, and immediately saw. Those who were present were astounded, while she, with every expression of joy, preceded them, pursuing her way without further need of a guide. Lucillus (bishop of Sinita), in the neighborhood of the colony Hippo, was carrying in procession some relics of the same martyr, which had been deposited in the castle of Sinita. A fistula under which he had long suffered … was suddenly cured by the mere carrying of that sacred burden.” (De Civ. Dei 22, 8)

These are only two of the several miracles which St Augustine attributes to the relics of St Stephen in this chapter; he goes on to list several others, and more still which took place in the towns of Calama and Uzali, which also had relics of the Saint, miracles of which he had personal knowledge. “I cannot record all the miracles I know; and doubtless several of our adherents, when they read what I have narrated, will regret that I have omitted so many which they, as well as I, certainly know. … I beg these persons to excuse me, and to consider how long it would take me to relate all those miracles … For were I to be silent of all others, and to record exclusively the miracles of healing which were wrought in the district of Calama and of Hippo by … the most glorious Stephen, they would fill many volumes.”

St Augustine, by Giuseppe Antonio Pianca, ca. 1745
As is so often the case (see here, here, and here) the inclusion of this passage in the Breviary is part of the Church’s response to the Protestant reformation. The early reformers frequently claimed to find in the writings of the Church Fathers proof that their novelties were in fact the original teachings of Christ and the Apostles, long obscured by medieval corruptions, and happily restored by themselves. On this score, St Augustine was frequently appealed to especially in matters pertaining to the doctrine of grace; John Calvin famously stated about him “totus noster est – he belongs entirely to us” (a typically gross exaggeration), while Luther himself had been an Augustinian.

It hardly needs to be said that apologists on the Catholic side had an easy rejoinder to this, namely, that the same Church Fathers frequently and enthusiastically taught and practiced things which the reformers themselves rejected. St Jerome, for example, was the only authority to whom they could appeal in defense of rejecting the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible, but he was also a fierce defender of the Papacy, of asceticism, monasticism, celibacy and virginity, all of which made him particularly distasteful to Luther. Likewise, here we see St Augustine, the supposed Protestant doctor of grace, unreservedly promoting not just devotion to the Saints (which many Protestants could accept in some form), but also the importance of relics.

There were, of course, many dubious or manifestly false relics in circulation at the time of the Reformation; it also true that in some places, clerical avarice benefitted greatly from the laity’s devotion by charging them to see or touch the relics kept in churches, a frequent matter of Protestant complaints. True reformers rightly wished to see such abuses put to an end, and the problem was raised and effectively dealt with at the final session of the Council of Trent. But passages such as the one from St Augustine added to the Breviary show the complete rejection of relics on the part of the reformers for what it truly was, a radical break with a universally held tradition, one with roots in the Bible itself, and faithfully passed on by the Fathers.

Folio 113r of the Saint-Sever Apocalypse, a mid-11th century manuscript which contains inter alia the Commentary on the Apocalypse of St Beatus of Liébana (ca. 730-800). This page represents the words of Apocalypse 6, 9-11, “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord (holy and true) dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?’ And white robes were given to every one of them one; and it was said to them, that they should rest for a little time, till their fellow servants, and their brethren, who are to be slain, even as they, should be filled up.” The golden T in the upper right corner of the picture is the altar (labelled ‘ara aurea - the golden altar’) and the birds beneath it are labelled ‘the souls of the slain.’ In the lower part, the caption reads ‘to these were given white stoles.’ (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Latin 8878)
In another example of its classic liturgical conservatism, the Roman church kept the feast of the Finding of St Stephen with almost the same liturgical texts as his principal feast on December 26th. The lessons of Matins described above are the only proper feature of the Office; the Mass is exactly the same, apart from the change of a single word in the Collect: “Grant us, we beseech thee, O Lord, so to imitate what we revere, that we may learn to love even our enemies; for we celebrate the birth/finding of him who knew how to pray for his very persecutors to our Lord.”

There was however, a completely proper Office for the feast, based on the text of Lucian’s letter, which was used in many other parts of Europe. Here are the three antiphons for the Gospel canticles.

Folio 312v of an antiphonary produced for the abbey of St Maur in France in the last quarter of the 11th century, with the first part of the proper Office of the Finding of St Stephen. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Latin 12584)
Ad Magn. Aña in I Vesp. Ostendit * sanctus Gamaliel per visum Luciano sacerdoti tres calathos aureos rosis refertos, et quartum argenteum croco plenum, et dixit: Hi sunt nostri loculi, et nostræ reliquiæ: hic autem sanguineas habens rosas, loculus est sancti Stephani, qui solus ex nobis martyrio meruit coronari. – The holy Gamaliel showed the priest Lucian in a vision three golden baskets filled with roses, and a fourth of silver, filled with saffron, and said, ‘These are our coffins, and our relics; and this one that hath roses the color of blood is the coffin of Saint Stephen, who alone among us merited to be crowned with martyrdom.” (In the letter, Gamaliel explains that the saffron represents the purity of his son Abibas, who died very young, and that they were buried together, hence there are only three coffins.)

Ad Bened. Ex odoris * mira fragrantia sanitas ægrotis emanavit maxima: septuaginta namque et tres tunc a variis languoribus curati sunt homines in Inventione corporis Stephani dilectissimi Martyris, Deum benedicentes. – From the wondrous fragrance of the smell, very great healing came forth unto the ill; for seventy-three persons were then healed of various ailments at the finding of the body of Stephen, the most beloved martyr, as they blessed God.

Ad Magn. in II Vesp. Hodie * Joannes Pontifex cum maximo cleri plebisque tripudio, pretiosas Protomartyris Stephani reliquias in sanctam transtulit ecclesiam Sion, ubi quondam Archidiaconi functus est officio: cujus pia apud Deum sit pro nobis, quæsumus, intercessio. – Today, bishop John, with very great rejoicing of the clergy and people, translated the precious relics of the First Martyr Stephen to the holy church of Zion, where once he fulfilled the office of archdeacon; and we ask that his holy intercession may stand for before God.

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